What makes a good garden and how does it help our sensibility of what is inspiring, what is beautiful, what is peaceful and what is radical? This is as much the territory of The Arts Society as any amount of consideration of painting, sculpture, music, decoration, architecture and theatre. Thus we welcomed Timothy Walker, a former Director of the Oxford University Botanic Garden, on 10 February at our first Spring Area Special Interest Day at Turners Hill, subscribed by 101 Society members and their guests, to deliver a seminar on “A Short History of the Art and Colours of Garden Design”. As usual the seminar was accompanied by an excellent lunch between lectures 2 and 3, catered by The Crown, a local pub, and also served to bring TAS members and a number of visitors together from diverse parts of Sussex and beyond. The Archaeology and the changing face of the Oxford Botanic Garden from its foundation in 1621 to the present day was the anchor of the seminar, but other gardens were mentioned and illustrated, especially those that were created in the 19th century under the influence of Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson. Even the Chelsea Flower Show got a mention!

Timothy delivered a brilliant and well-illustrated series of lectures at machine-gun pace, thus riveting our attention to every word, fast-forwarding from the 16th century to the 21st in the space of three talks. The main thesis was the gradual evolution of (mainly) English garden designs from re-enactments of the Garden of Eden to later and ultimately modern conceptions of the relationship between humans and their natural environment. One interesting side theme, in fact at times a revisited point of emphasis, was the parallel evolution of Chinese and Japanese gardens with those in Europe towards similar goals, though without conscious imitation until relatively recent times.

The second side theme was that gardens were once important sources of culinary herbs and medicinal plants, which to some extent dictated their layout and prioritised functionality over chromatic appeal. But with the 19th century interest began to shift to colour diversity, colour compatibilities and the accommodation of the natural seasonal cycle in the selection and clustering of plants to grow together, with their different visual contributions as spring turns to summer and then autumn.

Finally, Timothy introduced us very gently to the physics of colour and explained why this mattered in choices of colour combinations and their perceptions during the diurnal cycle from dawn through midday to dusk.

Written audience feedback included the following:

Wonderful life affirming day.
A truly wonderful day. I hope his students appreciate his knowledge and humour. Good choice.
Humour, informative art and quotes incorporated - very vibrant lecture - most interesting.
Wonderful lecture and splendid day.
Thank you for letting me come as a non-member, I’m certainly going to join now.
The best Arts Society talk I’ve ever been to.

Report written by David Bignell